By Councilmember Chris Duncan
Reprinted with permission from Chris Duncan. This article originally was printed in San Clemente Times, (March 4, 2021).
Our natural instinct in these times is to find like-minded souls to take us in, assuage our self-doubt, and tell us the “other side” is the source of our inner turmoil.
In coffee meetings, YouTube chats, and Facebook groups, the urge is strong to sort ourselves into competing factions, all bent on protecting “us” from “them” by denigrating those who see things differently.
Fear and frustration manifest as grievance against a mythical “they” who have gained from our side’s loss. Like a drowning swimmer off Lost Winds, we pull each other under to save ourselves.
This animosity, while comforting in the short run, is not the answer. We San Clemente residents will not, and should not, agree on everything. Vigorous debate results in a better functioning democracy, because the best ideas will withstand the toughest scrutiny.
But while we may disagree with our fellow citizens on the issues, we must not assign them evil intent. That is easier said than done, especially right now. National news outlets and social media companies, which profit off our divisions, tell us the stories we want to hear, not those we need to hear, and relentlessly demonize the “opposition.”
Your neighbor is not your enemy, but it is easy to believe he or she is. I know, because I am as susceptible to making rash personal judgments as the next person. It feels soothing for an instant to vilify someone who thinks differently, or worse, label them a bad person. But personal attacks only make us feel more bitter and alone, and in the long run, corrode our public discourse.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Each of us is responsible for changing the narrative. Our future generations are counting on us to make decisions today that will enhance our city’s prospects, not drive a wedge through it.
If we acknowledge that our own insecurities are often the source of our unease, we can avoid trying to find faults in others to make ourselves feel better. Through this acceptance, we can lift the invisible walls that separate us and come together to achieve the goals we share.
I believe we are in a unique position to make this happen. As tragic as COVID-19 has been, it has forced us to unify around beneficial practices we previously overlooked, like dining outdoors, enjoying our beautiful environment, and being more present for our kids.
As we emerge together from the pandemic, having defeated the virus and preserved our way of life through our collective diligence and mutual goodwill, we have an unprecedented opportunity to leverage this unity to tackle other challenges that seemed out of reach.
Stopping the toll road, saving our beaches, ending homelessness in town. These are all possible if we direct our energy toward solving the problem instead of endlessly critiquing fellow problem-solvers.
But this opportunity is fleeting. If we do not act now, it will pass us by. And a year from now, when things are back to normal, we may forget what is possible if we act in unison.
San Clemente is an extraordinary town, but I am convinced our best days are ahead of us. It is up to each and every one of us, including the five us on the city council, to release the baggage of contempt and blame, appeal to the better angels of our nature, and replace character smears with substantive, fact-driven discussion. Only then will our Spanish Village reach its full potential.
Chris Duncan is a San Clemente city councilmember who was elected in 2020.
One of the qualities encapsulated in First Amendment Voice’s Ed Lowry Memorial Award for Citizenship is a person’s ability to overcome setbacks and strive on in the face of adversity. Many of us are no strangers to adversity, especially after one of the most challenging years in recent public memory.
Rather than dwelling on the negative events that happened in 2020 and continued into 2021, we’d like to take this as an opportunity to meaningfully reflect on what adversity is and what we can do to change the ways in which we view and overcome adversity.
What is Adversity?
Adversity is generally described as serious and/or ongoing difficulties and misfortune. It can involve anything from physical, mental or emotional struggles of an individual to the social, legal or economic setbacks experienced by a wider group. Most people face some kind of adversity at many points in their lives, but the extent of the problem and the individual or group’s capacity to remain resilient in the face of adversity varies widely.
Pause for a moment to reflect on how adversity has appeared in your own life over the past year. What challenges have you faced, and how did you successfully overcome them? Which personality traits do you credit for your ability and willingness to strive onward in spite of the obstacles in your way? And if some of these adverse circumstances are still ongoing, what can you do today to resolve them?
Of course, not all types of adversity are resolvable through sheer determination by an individual. While the U.S. has long-embraced the cultural value of personal responsibility and ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,’ it’s important to remember that adversity is often caused by factors outside of our control (such as the pandemic and all the related consequences it has brought with it).
With this in mind, we should renew our focus on being empathetic towards others because we never know what someone might be going through behind the scenes. We can’t control others’ responses to conflict and adversity, but we can compassionately support them and find commonalities in our unique, yet similar struggles.
Reframing Adversity as Opportunity
As former First Lady Michelle Obama said in a college commencement speech in 2016: “You should never view your challenges as a disadvantage. Instead, it’s important for you to understand that your experience facing and overcoming adversity is actually one of your biggest advantages.”
As we discuss in-depth in our FAV-exclusive white paper, some of the best strategies for adjusting our expectations to upsetting or challenging situations involve self-distancing and cognitive reframing. In a nutshell, these techniques involve consciously viewing adverse situations as opportunities for growth and actively identifying which factors are within our control to drive positive changes in our lives.
For example, someone who is laid off could reframe job loss as an opportunity to find more meaningful employment elsewhere, perhaps with a more agreeable boss, better benefits, and greater job satisfaction. We’re not suggesting that you should only look at the bright side when confronted with adversity; it’s a natural human response to feel anxious, disappointed or angry when presented with a seemingly impossible obstacle to overcome. However, you also can’t let yourself get too caught up in the negativity if you genuinely hope to overcome adversity, so reframing how you think about a problem – as an opportunity rather than a disadvantage – is essential for overcoming setbacks in any area of your life.
It’s a fair question: who, exactly qualifies as a “journalist” these days? Can just anyone be considered a journalist, or are there certain educational and professional requirements involved? Do “citizen journalists” — everyday folks equipped with smart phones who are in the right place at the right time —count as journalists?
As Professor William E. Lee pointed out, “Anyone can be a journalist and they don’t need an affiliation with an established outlet…it’s increasingly important that unaffiliated journalists know they have the same legal protection as a reporter at a newspaper. It’s significant for the development of alternative forms of expression that do not fit neatly in our traditional concepts of speech or press.”
We could argue about who is and who isn’t a journalist all day, but there’s a bigger problem at hand: How does the First Amendment currently protect so-called “citizen journalists,” and what can be done to improve their free press freedoms? Let’s examine some of the concerns we have about citizen journalism:
Prosecuting Citizen Journalists
In 2017, Georgia citizen journalist Nydia Tisdale was convicted of a misdemeanor charge related to obstruction while filming a 2014 campaign rally that was publicly advertised but located on private property. When campaign organizers demanded she stop filming the event, Tisdale refused and was forcibly removed from the property. While she was acquitted of more serious felony charges, even the misdemeanor conviction could be a serious blow to citizen journalists’ rights around the country.
Around the world, citizen journalists are under attack. Many politicians and members of the public claim they’re not “real” journalists and therefore shouldn’t receive the same rights and protections as reporters from established media organizations. Many citizen journalists have faced threats, harassment and even arrest, as in the case of Priscilla Villarreal.
Are these incidents proof that the First Amendment rights of these citizen journalists are being violated, or are these incidents proof that citizen journalists do not and/or should not receive the same treatment as professional journalists associated with established news outlets? Perhaps only time (and many more legal battles) will give us any clarity on these issues.
Freedom of Expression Alternative?
As UNESCO points out, citizen journalists ought to receive similar protections as “established” and “professional” journalists in order to ensure freedom of expression for all citizens. Thanks to online publishing platforms like WordPress, Tumblr, YouTube and other social media channels, there are far fewer restrictions and obstacles preventing everyday people from reporting on local events, video-taping law enforcement and broadcasting images, audio and video about natural disasters happening in their communities.
Since we are increasingly reliant on citizen journalists to cover small and major events alike, they certainly should receive the same press freedom protections as professional journalists. The question that remains now is: How can we ensure citizen journalists, who may not have media badges and credentials and expensive-looking equipment, are given equal access to reporting opportunities as their professional counterparts?
Conflict is an inevitable part of living in human society, but interpersonal conflicts seem to be particularly emotionally-charged in the U.S. nowadays, regardless of whether you’re arguing about politics, finances or other areas of dispute in our daily lives.
If you find yourself getting upset and angry (or perhaps shutting down and shutting others out), you might want to try employing these three proven strategies for maintaining calm in heated arguments:
Focus on Your Breathing
There have been countless studies conducted on the psychological and physiological benefits of breathing, and the results are fairly consistent: slow, deep breathing techniques are proven to reduce your heart rate, increase your comfort and mental alertness, and reduce arousal, anxiety and anger.
When engaged in a heated argument, focusing on your breathing (and your body overall) can help you maintain physical and mental calmness. As silly as it may seem to have to practice something all humans do naturally and unconsciously throughout our daily lives, practicing breathing techniques is the only way to experience the full benefits. Without a keen sense of self-awareness achieved through consistent practice, it may seem like deep breathing doesn’t help much. In reality, this is one of the best ways to stay calm in a heated argument.
Engage in Reflective Listening
Reflective listening involves genuinely paying attention to another person’s words, feelings and nonverbal expressions in an attempt to understand where they’re coming from (which is a core component of empathy). When you’re engaged in reflective listening, you shouldn’t interrupt the other person — no matter how much you might want to. Instead, offer brief forms of acknowledgement, such as “m-hmm,” “go on,” “oh really?” or even just a simple head nod or change of facial expression to signal that you’re actively listening.
Reflective listening requires a considerable amount of self-awareness and self-control, which also relate to the concept of motivated reasoning that we previously wrote about.
Consider the Consequences
When you’re involved in an interpersonal conflict, consider how much you value the person versus how much you value your position on a given matter. If this argument continues and heads in a more negative direction, is it worth sacrificing the stability of your relationship with this person in order to vocalize your viewpoints and attempt to win them over?
With this in mind, consider the potential outcomes of an argument. Is it over a relatively minor issue (in the overall scope of your life) or is this a major problem with potentially life-changing consequences? Is the person/group involved worth the time and emotional energy you’re putting into arguing with them? If so, would you still want to argue with them if there was a 0% chance that they would ever change their mind?
The questions above ask you to consider your relationship with the person(s) you’re arguing with, the issue you’re divided over, and the potential consequences that may result from the conflict. When involved in a heated argument, it’s easy for us to get tunnel vision and ignore these important considerations in order to focus on “winning,” but this is rarely an effective strategy for actually changing people’s viewpoints and maintaining healthy relationships with them at the same time.
For more information on improving your constructive communication skills, be sure to download the new white paper on our website.
Have you ever wondered what freedom of expression looks like in countries beyond the United States? Free speech laws are influenced by a country’s history, political climate, socio-cultural dynamics and other factors, and you may be surprised by how some countries differ from the U.S.’s First Amendment.
This article will review three other countries’ laws and regulations related to freedom of expression and compare certain policies with similar policies enacted in the U.S.
World Press Freedom Index ranking (as of 2020): 4th
Sweden has a long history of advancing freedom of the press and free speech, but notably, it has criminalized defamation and prosecutes those who violate anti-hate speech clauses enshrined in the Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression.
According to research published by the Library of Congress, Sweden differs from the U.S. when it comes to freedom of expression by criminalizing public statements that threaten or disrespect an individual or group on the basis of identity factors such as race, gender, faith or national origin.
Interestingly in 2017, a citizen-curator for the official Sweden Twitter account – which was managed by one new citizen per week between 2011 and 2018 – blocked over 14,000 users for suspected Nazi links or “threats against migrants, women and LGBTQ people” (the block list was eliminated after public backlash).
World Press Freedom Index ranking (as of 2020): 66th
Like Sweden and the U.S., Japan protects freedom of speech in its Constitution but this freedom is not without limitations.
For instance, interrupting a political campaign speech is prohibited by Japan’s Public Office Election Act and may be punishable by imprisonment (up to 4 years) or a fine of up to one million yen (approx. $9,000 US). Japan’s courts have also ruled that an individual or group’s actions that make it impossible or difficult for members of an audience to hear a speech may constitute a punishment-worthy disruption of a campaign speech, which is quite a different approach than what we’ve witnessed in political campaign speeches in the U.S.
Japan also criminalizes certain speech acts involving defamation, insult or intimidation.
World Press Freedom Index ranking (as of 2020): 31st
Section 16 of the Republic of South Africa’s Constitution (1996) guarantees the right to freedom of expression – with some caveats. University of the Witwatersrand Professor Victoria Bronstein wrote in a 2006 report that South Africa’s limitations on free speech do not protect war propaganda, inciting violence, or advocating hatred based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion.
As of 2016, a newer piece of legislation — The Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill — seeks to increase protections for individuals and groups facing discrimination, harassment and/or violence on the basis of identity factors (e.g., age, disability, skin color, culture, sex/gender identity, language).
The bill was presumably designed to resolve lasting implications of the country’s history of racial segregation (Apartheid). However, there is also vocal opposition to it from organizations such as the Helen Suzman Foundation (a nonpartisan South African think tank centered on promoting liberal democratic values), which argued that the bill doesn’t clearly differentiate between offensive versus harmful speech, among other reasons.
What roles do your social identities play in your life?
Whether or not we’re always conscious of it, our group affiliations – such as nationality, economic class, gender, race/ethnicity, dis/ability, military/veteran status, etc. – are significantly influential factors when it comes to who we interact with, how others engage with us, how and which public policies impact us (not to mention how we feel about those policies) and so much more.
Given the importance of varying aspects of our identities in everyday interpersonal situations, it’s no wonder social identities are increasingly influencing our political affiliations, behaviors and feelings as well.
As Peter Grier wrote in an October 2018 article for the Christian Science Monitor: “social identity is now at the heart of the two big parties that govern America. They’re split along racial, religious, and cultural lines. The crosscutting social ties that once promoted partisan understanding have withered. Democrats and Republicans live in different neighborhoods, send their kids to different schools, attend different churches, and increasingly inhabit their own news and information bubbles.”
Over the past few decades, there have been countless studies conducted on the influence of social identities in American politics, including the phenomenon of “identity politics” itself.
In the book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, author and Yale Law School Professor Amy Chua explained how identity politics came to mean two very different things for liberals and conservatives.
For the Left, Chua wrote that identity politics became a means for “confront[ing] rather than obscur[ing] the uglier aspects of American history and society,” as we’ve seen from the rise of “cancel culture,” discussions about systemic racism and cultural appropriation, implicit bias trainings, and the expansion of gender identity vocabularies, to name a few.
Meanwhile, the Right – which has typically eschewed racial group affiliations and privileged individualism as one of America’s greatest ideals – has increasingly engaged in similar forms of identity-based political tactics.
A political commentator cited in Chua’s book summarized the rise of white identity politics succinctly: “many feel that society has come to glorify all things non-white, demonize all things white, and that if they do not fight back no one will…feeling as though they are under perpetual attack for the color of their skin, many on the right have become defiant of their whiteness, allowing it into their individual politics in ways they have not for generations” (p.191).
In a nutshell: our social identities have become so deeply connected to who we are as citizens and voters that it often seems impossible to separate identity from politics, whether you’re liberal, conservative, or anything in between.
Perhaps this reveals another cause behind our collective inability to reach compromises and engage in constructive political dialogues: many people perceive they’re being targeted by the “other side” based on some aspect of their identity, which prompts them to feel defensive and even lash out in response.
To learn more about the growing “pandemic of polarization” happening in the U.S., be sure to sign up for our soon-to-be-released white paper, which will be exclusively available for First Amendment Voice newsletter subscribers and members.